Writing a letter has been an effective means of communication for centuries. In fact, letters are easily the most important form of non-verbal communication in human history. But the rise of digital communication has seen the number of letters sent slowly dwindling in recent years. During the 80s and 90s, letter volumes had a tendency to follow patterns of economic growth, but from 2000 onwards this pattern changed, and letter volumes went in to decline due to the ‘technology wedge’. In the UK Royal Mail reported a 3.1% p.a. decline in letter volumes between 2005 and 2008, which increased to 6.3% p.a. decline from 2008 – 2013.
The History Of Writing Letters
It’s hard to pinpoint the year that writing letters began, as they date so far back into our history. However, it’s widely acknowledged that the first recorded handwritten letter was written by Queen Atossa, a Persian Royal, in around 500BC. Such a letter would not have been written on paper, so leaves and bark were probably used as a canvas. Delivery would have been made by hand as this was before the postal system.
Writing letters was such an important means of communication when other opportunities to contact people who lived far away were not available. Email and even telephones are relatively new in the scope of human history, so letters were vital for the basic communication with people outside our local area that today we take for granted.
Writing Letters: A Lost Artform
Before the invention of less formal communications like text messaging and email, most people grew up being taught how to write a letter. Writing to friends and family was a great way to keep in touch, and it enabled people to practice their literacy skills and communicate effectively.
Certain formats and formalities were commonplace in England and similar structures were found throughout the world, which set expectations for letter writing across the board. For a formal letter, good punctuation and grammar were expected throughout, and the tone was required to be proper and polite. If you’re writing a formal letter today, the same rules still apply. Here’s a quick guide to the art form of writing a good formal letter:
- Place the date in the top right
- Write your name and address in the top left
- Write the recipient’s name and address below this
- Start the letter with ‘Dear’
- Address the recipient formally, using their last name or full name
- If you don’t know their name, write Sir or Madam
- Start the letter with a clear summary of why you are writing to them
- Write simply and clearly throughout the body of the letter
- Check your spelling, grammar and punctuation
- If you do not know the name of the recipient (e.g. ‘Dear Sir’), close the letter with ‘Yours faithfully’
- If you have addressed the letter to a specific person, close the letter with ‘Yours sincerely’
The guide above covers basic rules of etiquette when writing letters with a formal purpose, like applying for a job or writing to a company, government body or person of authority.
Aside from the conventions and custom of writing letters, there is also an art form that’s in danger of being lost. Letter writing is a treasured pastime of many many great writers, and here are some of our favourite letter writing quotes courtesy of Good Reads:
“The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters.”
― Lewis Carroll
“To write is human, to receive a letter: Devine!”
― Susan Lendroth
“Letter writing can be seen as a gift because someone has taken his/her time to write and think and express love.”
― Soraya Diase Coffelt
These thoughts on letter writing remind us that it can provide enjoyment for both the writer and the recipient, as well as providing a window to what it means to be human. This just goes to stress the importance of writing letters even in an age where digital communications may seem quicker and easier.
The Place of Letters in Today’s Society
Although volumes have decreased, letters still have their place in today’s society. In certain situations it is considered correct to communicate via letter, as an email or text would be deemed too informal. In other situations digital communications may still be unavailable, so the letter comes in to its own. On other occasions, letter writing is simply an enjoyable choice.
Writing Formal Letters
In the workplace, it’s often most appropriate to deal with certain communications by writing a letter. For example, a job application may require a covering letter, an employee reference might demand a letter of recommendation, or you might even wish to pen an official letter of resignation. Even in today’s digital world, many employers can view digital communications as rather lax on these occasions, and find a formal letter is much more appropriate.
Writing Letters To Military
Soldiers that are serving in the military may be constantly amidst difficult and dangerous situations, and often aren’t able to access email whilst on a military base. However, writing letters to troops can be a great way to help raise morale. Whether the letters are from friends and family, or even someone they don’t know, receiving a written communication can be a great means of escapism and comfort.
Writing Letters Without Sending
The process of writing a letter can be quite therapeutic, providing emotional and psychological benefits. It allows a person to express their thoughts and feelings in a considered and eloquent way. Sometimes it can actually be useful to write a letter that never gets sent! Such a letter might be addressed to a specific person, either real or fictional.
Perhaps you might even wish to write a letter to your future self, to remind you of how you felt at a certain point in life. Opening it later can be fun or moving, helpful and can sometimes help you focus on achieving your goals.
The Benefits Of Writing Letters
Letter writing can be beneficial, so let’s take a look at some of the reasons you should keep putting pen to paper from time to time:
- It shows you care – a letter sent in today’s world takes much more effort than an email. As a result, you’re showing how much you care for someone when you write to them. It might just make their day!
- It helps you to express yourself – expressive writing has been linked to reduced stress, better mood and an improved sense of well-being, so letters can help you psychologically too!
- It fosters creativity – technology uses different processes in our brain than good old-fashioned writing does. Using all our senses and slowing things down by writing a letter can help us to be more creative.
- It preserves tradition – and can make a sentimental keepsake. It’s not so easy to keep an email or a text, and a handwritten letter is much more personal.
- You can focus completely – a pen and paper carries far less distractions than a computer. If you’re writing a letter by hand it’s easier to focus on the single task, making it easier to express your message.
It’s clear to see that letter writing is an important activity to preserve and enjoy. Despite declining numbers of letters being sent over recent years, the art of letter writing is not yet dead and may even be experiencing a resurgence as people unplug and try to spend some time away from technology. When was the last time you wrote or received a letter?